Questionnaire-style tools, although under-used by professionals, remain effective in assessments, reports Judy Cooper
A consequence of the widespread dislike of the integrated children’s system (ICS) has been the unpopularity of simple tools to help social workers do their job, according to Michael Sheppard of Plymouth University. “Which is a pity,” he says, “because, if they are validated and reliable, they can be incredibly useful.”
Sheppard, a professor of social work, has developed a parent concerns questionnaire, which he originally devised in 1999 to help his research into maternal depression in social work. Since then he has found a range of uses for it across the sector.
The questionnaire consists of 37 simple questions that a parent is asked to then rate as either not a problem, moderately a problem, or a severe problem.
Anything rated as a severe problem should prompt an assessment by a professional. The questionnaire takes 10 minutes to complete and is a useful snapshot of how parents view their situation.
“It is most useful for non-social workers who are completing a common assessment framework or an assessment of need,” he says. “We’ve found that, because the language is easily understood by the parent, it allows them to express or identify a problem that many find difficult to articulate with a professional. It’s not perfect, nor exhaustive, but with any tool you have to keep the balance between ensuring it doesn’t take too long but still provides comprehensive information.”
The questionnaire has also been tested in child protection cases but Sheppard admits social workers would already ask most of the questions “although some studies have shown this is not necessarily the case” he adds.
“Basically the questionnaire should be used as a useful starting point for a discussion between parent and professional.”
It can also be an aid to measuring outcomes. Sheppard has used it to monitor families who fell just below child protection thresholds and helped identify those whose situations were worsening.
Similar use has been made of it in children’s centres. In one, it was found that most parents were having difficulty setting boundaries for their children, pointing to the need for parenting classes. Asking the parents to complete the questionnaire again six months later helped assess whether the class had been effective.
“It can assess outcomes because it has scored incredibly highly on reliability tests so it’s able to measure improvement,” Sheppard says. “There are few social work specific tools that have been tested for validity and reliability, yet this is what makes them useful.”
However, independent child protection social worker Joanna Nicolas warns that, although tools can be a useful way to ensure all the areas are covered in an assessment, she would “guard against practitioners losing their ability to think through over-dependence on such tools”.
Although the questionnaire can provide a wider picture of the family, question 18 – about difficulties with contraception and unwanted pregnancies – should be removed, she says.
“These are questions that should be asked sensitively further down the line,” Nicolas says. “Question 14 already covers unwanted sexual advances or violence which is what we need to know, but families are entitled to some privacy. Sometimes we presume too much.”
Reliability and validity
Plymouth University tested the questionnaire for validity by comparing answers with those given using other tools currently used in clinical and research practice, such as those that measure depression, stress, deprivation and feelings of loss of control.
It measured reliability by asking people to take and then re-take the questionnaire within a timeframe that meant their situation was unlikely to have changed but they could not remember the answers they gave first time.
Scoring system: 0 No problem, 1 It is a problem, but not severe, 2 Severe problem. Anything rated as a severe problem should prompt an assessment by a professional.
1 My housing is not good enough for my family’s needs.
2 I have problems with money, such as debts or managing my money.
3 My husband/partner or I have difficulties at work, such as conflict with our bosses or workmates or the threat of unemployment (circle 0 if neither in paid employment).
4 My husband/partner or I have difficulties with public organisations, such as police, health, Department for Work and Pensions, education.
5 At least one member of my family experiences problems arising from race or culture, for example, racism, language difficulties, religious pursuits.
6 I have problems managing the home as well as I’d like, for example, cooking, cleaning, maintenance.
7 I am doing things that are likely to, or which have, put me in trouble with the law.
8 My close (adult) family or friends are doing things likely to put them in trouble with the law.
9 My husband/partner or I have problems with drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
10 I have problems with my marriage/relationship such as persistent arguments, lack of affection, aggressiveness, sex problems.
11 I have problems with other adults in my family, such as persistent arguments, extended separation, not getting on.
12 I have problems with my friends, such as not getting on as well as I’d like, arguments, extended separation.
13 I feel rather alone with few friends.
14 I am subject to unwanted sexual advances and/or violence.
15 I am distressed by the loss of someone close to me.
16 I have a long-term illness or disability which I find difficult to cope with.
17 A close adult member of my family has a long-term illness or disability which I find difficult to cope with.
18 I have sexual problems, such as difficulties with contraception, unwanted pregnancy.
19 I feel generally sad or anxious, but not badly enough to be really depressed.
20 I feel really depressed.
21 A close adult family member has a mental illness which I find difficult to cope with.
One or more of my children
22 is often upset, distressed or depressed.
23 is frequently defiant or aggressive or has tantrums.
24 has difficulty concentrating or learning as quickly as they should.
25 doesn’t involve him/herself with other children as much as I would expect of a child their age.
26 doesn’t seem to know who s/he is or what s/he wants.
27 has persistent physical disability or illness.
28 shows emotional problems in physical ways such as bedwetting, not eating enough or disrupted sleeping.
29 does not do as well as s/he should at school (if they are of school age).
30 behaves badly at school or plays truant (if they are of school age).
31 is doing things likely to place him/her in trouble with the law.
I and (if they live with you) my husband or partner
32 do not feel as affectionate as I would like towards one or more of the children.
33 find control and discipline of the children is a problem.
34 should be more involved with my children in their activities.
35 generally expect rather too much of my children.
36 are rather too critical of my children.
37 Our/my physical care of my children is not as good as it should be.
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This article is published in the 7 July 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “What’s the score?”